While backyard birdwatching may be a meditative pastime for many, Massachusetts residents are urged to take precautions when filling their bird feeders to help stop the spread of a mysterious communicable disease killing birds across the Eastern seaboard.
According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, an increased number of reports of dead birds in the mid-Atlantic and midwest regions affected by an unknown illness has prompted investigation by wildlife officials in several states over the last several months.
At the time of press, officials have ruled out avian influenza, West Nile virus, Newcastle disease, heavy metals, and common pesticides and herbicides as causes of illness. Additionally, MassWildlife reports no related health issues in humans, livestock, poultry, or pets.
The “large scale bird mortality events” have been documented in at least 10 states since May 2021, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. The disease has impacted many common species, including robins, jays, starlings, and grackles. Symptoms include neurological issues (such as disorientation or stumbling) and conjunctivitis (crusty or swollen eyes).
While MassWildlife was clear in a recent memo that the department does not believe that bird feeders and bird baths themselves are contributing to the spread of illness, such locations encourage animals to congregate. Nonetheless, the department encourages residents to “disinfect these surfaces on at least a weekly basis... clean with soap and water then disinfect with a 10 percent bleach solution, rinse with clean water, and allow to air-dry.”
If residents observe dead or sick birds in the area of feeders, MassWildlife encourages the cleaning of feeders and removal for at least two weeks. An added benefit, says the department, is a reduction in attractive food sources for rodents and bears.
As bears search for high calorie treats (such as bird seed and corn) to prepare for winter hibernation, they often follow smells into suburban areas and then return year after year, creating problems not only for the bears but for humans as well.
Avid bird lovers need not despair over the loss of wildlife in their backyards. MassWildlife suggests that avian enthusiasts seek alternative methods to attract feathered friends, such as “planting native plants, shrubs, or trees, installing water features, and erecting bird houses” to create sheltered areas for nesting and roosting.
Leaving small brush piles and small dead tree stumps also create areas for birds to live. Native vegetation can help attract a wider range of bird species — try planting cherries or blueberries to give visiting friends a snack.
Additionally, MassWildlife says that “native plants support a much higher diversity and number of nvertebrates than non-native plants. This is especially true with caterpillars, which are the preferred food for young songbirds.”
State wildlife officials will continue to monitor bird deaths in the area. Birds should not be handled directly; if dead birds must be moved, use a trash bag and gloves and keep other wildlife and pets away.
Residents who spot symptomatic birds or birds who have died of unknown causes are encouraged to email email@example.com with photos of the bird or file a report at www.mass.gov/forms/report-observations-of-dead-birds.